In today’s modern workforce, competition for high-paying jobs is at an all-time high. Supply is dwindling and demand is only increasing. Study abroad, as it was commonly referred to, used to be a time to explore and party - now it has to be a whole lot more than that. Universities understand this imperative in presenting an attractive yet practical approach to enhancing the global mindset of its graduates while providing them with an opportunity to differentiate themselves in the market.
I know this too well - I’m a product of this system. Entering college, being only from one single town and never having expanded further, it was incumbent on me to accelerate my professional development beyond merely obtaining a 4-year degree. But not all educational tour companies are created equal - many seek to capitalize on this fear of being left behind, delivering substandard experiences for overinflated prices. To steer you in the right direction, here are my recommended picks for the best educational tour companies.
Best International Travel Educational Tour: EF Tours
Let’s start with the behemoth in the space: EF Education First (often simplified to EF Tours). Founded in Switzerland in 1965 as a language school for Swedish students, EF Tours now operates in 114 countries with over 52,000 employees. Often dubbed the ‘Educational Field Trip’, EF Tours specializes in trips that Universities and other educational institutions can add on as a supplement to existing study abroad experiences. Students are enticed by the additional travel and opportunity to bring textbook imagery to life.
I was one of those students that were enticed. For me as a visual learner, it was never enough to simply learn about events in history and academic theories from a dry manuscript, I need to experience the life that comes from immersing oneself into those environments. EF Tours provides local experts that become your teacher - an empowering sight that sticks in my mind is watching our own professors sit side-by-side with us as we learned the nuances from someone who knows it best: a local. When dealing with topics that transcend borders and time (in my case it was Politics and Human Rights), EF Tours ensures that their local experts are not merely run-of-the-mill educators, rolling out the same lesson styles for students.
Instead, these local experts bring a vivacity and authenticity to these topics, ironically enough ensuring that students are left with some of the most powerful educational experiences of their entire college careers. It speaks volumes to EF Tours’ hiring process that, without fail, each of our local educational tour directors were respectful, fun-loving, and invested in ensuring that we as students not only learned a thing or two but had an amazing time doing so. The programs themselves are as different as the countries that EF Tours operates in: Berlin’s guide was a friend and a confidante that helped us make sense of a chaotic, artistic, if at times grungy, metropolis while Peru felt like I had landed in an alternate dimension, where I encountered a true test of my cultural ignorance, from high-level concepts such as population composition to the most mundane in cuisine.
Most Unique Educational Tour: Semester at Sea
Most educational travel experiences seem to invoke the same images in the mind of students. Flying to a far-off country, maybe learning a little of a local language - suffice to say, planes feature heavily. When you’re looking for a unique option, it’s hard to go past studying on a boat (and a pretty big boat at that). Semester at Sea originated in 1963 under the fabulously-named Institute for Shipboard Education. Over 70,000 students from 1500 American educational institutions have participated over the 50+ years the program has been in operation. It’s one of those programs that isn’t that widely known - although if you know, you know (coincidentally I first came across it on The Suite Life on Deck, the Disney sequel to the Millennial/Gen Z’s essential viewing The Sweet Life of Zack and Cody).
Personally speaking, the radical change in scenery invites a sense of heightened curiosity that is hard to replicate with other educational tour companies. This isn’t no family vacation cruise - you are a solo scholarly sailor embarking on a current of academia - complete with your best buddies in tow. Currently provided courses via their academic sponsor, Colorado State University, Semester at Sea ensures you gain academic credit that can be transferred back to your degree’s primary University. But don’t think that academic-based learning is all they offer - Semester at Sea partnered with the United Nations to develop a specific mission-driven curriculum catered to helping young people tackle the Millennium Development Goals.
Best Collegiate Credit Educational Tour: University-led Programs
Probably the one that even the most unaware student knows, University-led study abroad has a resounding popularity: both for its frictionless admission and hefty institutional marketing budget (hey, every college wants to produce ‘globally-minded graduates’ these days). Obviously, this one tends to be unique to your specific institution, but I’ll do my best to give the broad brushstrokes based on my own experience. In my case, professional development was the key motivator - knowing that study in conjunction with internship opportunities was going to position me as a more attractive entry-level hire upon graduation.
Beyond functional benefits, my University-led program afforded me the opportunity to extend myself, living and working further away from home than I ever had before, as well as testing my inner strength, resilience, and independence. For this reason, I strongly urge students considering educational study-abroad programs to pick one involving internship or other workplace opportunities, as it develops key personal attributes and soft skills beyond what a mere academic-only study-abroad experience can provide.
Time management (a perennially desired skill in the workplace) was easily the most enhanced attribute - working 9am to 5pm during the day, only to have to come back to the dorm and switch on for a 6:30pm class. When you’re studying at your home University, it’s easy to fall into the trap of procrastination and excuses, but when you have work deadlines, real world responsibilities, on top of academic classes, it isn’t good enough to fail to complete your obligations - it’s time to be an adult, and I can’t think of a better way to prepare you for the real world than a study-abroad program (and you still get academic credit).
In the same vein, the personal development side of professionalism is second to none. Through an at times grueling process, I discovered what roles appealed to me, what personality types I meshed with best, and work styles & environments that were the best fit for my unique set of skills and psychological makeup. It put me ahead of the curve, allowing me to gain years on my peers and avoid early career mistakes, that history shows can sometimes prove detrimental.
Best Philanthropic Educational Tour: Mission Trips
Education is more than just what we learn in the classroom, so it’s fitting that I include an option that doesn’t give you academic credit (but might just give your soul some). Mission volunteering trips provide an avenue for students to use their vacations productively, by serving underprivileged communities, in short 1-3 week programs. Project SERVE, an initiative that features at both Universities, such as Pepperdine, and non-profit faith-based organizations, such as Youth for Christ, is one such program that I have the most familiarity with - but needless to say, there are tons of volunteering abroad organizations (and even some secular ones if religion ain’t your thing - my personal pick is AIESEC, with which I taught English and Entrepreneurship in Vietnam).
What struck me most about philanthropic educational tours is the true diversity of students who all unanimously heralded the experience as one of the best of their collegiate career. From the devout Evangelicals, to the non-religious, from the frat bros, to the party girls, Project SERVE had an insatiable magnetism that seemed to transform personalities who you wouldn’t associate with giving back, into the biggest champions of volunteering and caring for others. What may appear at first glance as a break from academia, leads to some of the most profound personal (and at times spiritual) enlightenment & fulfillment, which truly helps students become holistic graduates that understand implicitly their place in the world. If that isn’t education, I don’t know what is.
Top Educational Tour Companies: Summary
Whether because of today’s competitive job market, or the desire for more purpose in our lives, education is no longer about books, lectures, and a piece of paper at the end. Ultimately, it’s about creating a deeply developed and nuanced personal and professional self, which is facilitated via these educational tour companies. Those that started as an alternative, have become an imperative for students looking to accelerate their careers, impact those around them, and truly change the world.